I started sourcing goods in China over 30 years ago, back when I was operating out of one small shop on Southend seafront. Now I'd say 98% of our supplies come from China and we've got four offices there, and one in Hong Kong – as well as a 20-acre British HQ in Essex, where 300 staff work.
Getting a local partner is probably the best move I ever made. He is from Taiwan and we have worked together for years now. I've learned a huge amount from him about Chinese culture, bureaucracy and the best way to do business there. When you're negotiating with a Chinese supplier, there is a way of talking that is completely different from what we are used to in the West. You might spend an hour talking about the price for one item, circling the issue rather than going straight at it – we call it dancing.
Two things you must never do are to back them into a corner – if you do, they will never come out – or lose your temper. Chinese people think it's hilarious when someone starts shouting and banging the table.
China is the only country I know where you lose money on the property market. But when we opened our first office there in Nanjing I didn't know that, so I bought the freeholds on the office, and on an apartment for the manager, too. When I sold a few years ago I took a bath – old buildings depreciate there just like anything else, and they were worth 60% less than what I had paid for them.
Only very recently has property started to appreciate in value, and only in Shanghai – a city that is completely different from the rest of China anyway: it's like a country within a country.
A common mistake that buyers from the West make is to underestimate the Chinese, to look down on them because so many of the people are poor. But they are incredibly hard working, and the education system there is phenomenal. A lot of the growth in our industry has been on the back of growth in China – the size and speed of the Chinese economy forces competitiveness.